Saturday, March 15, 2014

Castor & Pollux

My newest pet portrait is of twin cats Castor and Pullox, as in the Greek mythical characters (not the pet food).

It's always nice when clients provide a bit of history to give me an idea of how to compose the drawing. According to the owner, "They are gray tabby brothers from the same litter. They are absolutely inseparable, hence the names Castor and Pollux from the Greek myth."

It's also nice when the owner gives a hint of direction: "I would like a portrait of the two with a Greek theme: perhaps two warriors, as Castor and Pollux were according to the myth."

Since I have zero knowledge of Greek mythology, I googled Castor & Pollux, and came up with two ideas.

The first was something sort of classical that tells a story about the myth but also about the actual cats:

I was pretty excited about this idea, because it's fairly different from what I've done before. It's also even more aligned with the spirit of Coat and Tails: a mix of very high art and very low art.

The second idea I sent was a simpler, more traditional portrait layout based on the highly recognizable sculpture of Castor and Pollux:

The client preferred the latter option because it put the focus on the cats, which is understandable.

The next step is choosing the right reference image. I chose the two photos shown below because I liked that their heads were in different positions, as though they were comfortable with each other, maybe talking, maybe standing watch, two bodies with the same soul.

So I started sketching.

The client approved of the sketch, so I started adding in the shading/details:

This is my Black Ticked style, which has evolved over time. It used to be made up of fat lines and dots, like below:

It started this way so people could have the design easily printed on shirts and other merchandise, but the big dots were too limiting. 

Over the years, I have found a few ways to draw hair. One is to simply go in and spend a lot of time drawing individual hairs. Below is a drawing I did a few years ago using this method:

Another technique I now use to draw hair in the newer Black Ticked drawings is smudging the dots to create more realistic fur. I start by using a brush that is made up of tiny dots:

Then I use the Smudge tool to draw out those tiny dots into small, blurry lines:

I still have some tweaking to do, but it's done enough for me to write this post.

Until next time and thanks for reading!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Coat and Tails Logo

I never really created an official logo for Coat and Tails. Mainly because I haz commitment issues: I CAN ONLY CHOOSE ONE?! Sadly, that's probably true.

I made one monogram-like logo awhile ago:

I guess overall, it's simpler than I want. Plus it's kind of meaningless without the text "Coat and Tails." Below are some examples of the sort of richness I want to achieve:

Here's what I came up with:

All of it was created in Illustrator. I typically find Photoshop easier to use, but I wanted the logo to be in an entirely vector format. The monogram was drawn directly in Illustrator and probably took the most time. I really wanted to add a cameo or poop bags or poop scoopers to fuse classy and tacky and underscore the playfulness and lowbrow nature of Coat and Tails, but it was too distracting. Perhaps in a future iteration. (There's my noncommittal nature coming through.)

Obviously, I want the logo to reflect a Victorian aesthetic, but I also don't want the lettering to be too complex and ornate, since that can impede clear printing and readability. So I decided to base the font for "Coat and Tails" on Garamond Bold. Garamond has a classic, old-world feel, but it's also readable. To allude more directly to a Victorian aesthetic, I added Westerny serifs to the top, middle, and bottom. Also, to achieve symmetry, I adjusted the kerning so that "Coat" was as wide as "Tails".

The "Pet Portraits" font is based on Engravers MT Bold. This is a less readable font than Garamond, but it's less important information, so I allowed it. Here's the original font:
Engravers MT Bold
Here's how I changed it:
Modified Engravers MT Bold

I wanted to add another layer of complexity to match "Coat and Tails", so I added a shadow with its own bottom serif:

Final Modified Engravers MT Bold Font

So there's your glimpse into how the logo happened. I basically spent one day on it because that's pretty much all the time I had.

Now it's back to drawing.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Hand Drawn versus Digital Techniques

People who create things - be it a novel or a poster design or a hamburger - make conscious decisions about its construction. One of these decisions is having to choose between a hand-drawn or a digital aesthetic. I almost always want to choose the hand-drawn option because it seems more playful, unique, and warm. I love seeing artists and designers having fun through their work, and a hand-drawn aesthetic seems to communicate that. And I aspire to invoke that reaction as well.

But the choice is not always so easy. For instance, I love these stamps so so so much.

(The Once New Vintage blog seems to be gone forever, sadly.)

They aren't hand-drawn at all, though. And when I decided to recreate these stamps using my own theme and aesthetic, I had to choose whether to replicate the vector-like, engraved look, or modernize them using a more hand-drawn look.

In the end, I decided that the best way to allude directly to the old-fashioned, engraved stamps, and also to the aforementioned playfulness, was to start by vectorizing the whole design and then tracing over the vectors on paper. That way, there's an element of perfect symmetry and placement, much like the original stamps, but there are no truly straight lines (except for some in the background). The end result is here: 

Overall, I like the design, and it accomplishes what I want to accomplish, but in the future, I'd like to enliven it with the ridiculously complex aesthetic of the original stamps. I guess maybe I didn't this time because I wanted to clearly communicate the message. One of the downsides of using a Victorian aesthetic for poster designs is that in our fast-paced, highly consumptive culture, people may pass over a message that is even slightly too difficult to read or understand. 

So far, I've mainly been talking about micro-decisions in individual designs. But it's also worth thinking about how these micro-decisions impact the overall aesthetic of a body of work. This is another area I constantly struggle with because I love so many types of designs, and don't want to limit myself to what I can make. People like to see consistency. They're comforted by it. And it's good marketing for the artist because if they see a certain style out in the world, they can say, "oh it's that designer, he does the animals wearing Victorian clothes." And it makes sense: it's fun to see artists work within a scope. It's like that scene from Apollo 13 where the dudes down in Houston put everything the astronauts have on their shuttle in a room and are charged with putting something together using only those things. It's inventive and creative to work with only a finite number of materials and concepts.

I thought a lot about this when I started Coat and Tails: the idea was to limit my work to three styles, all in a Victorian theme. The simplicity of that is attractive, not only to me, but to a culture - or perhaps a species - that doesn't adapt well to change. Like Emerson said "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". I also think about how Bob Dylan hops genres as well. I always think about how he went from playing folk music to electric music and pissed everyone off - until they realized how good the latter was. That speaks volumes about his talent.

So the micro-decision - hand-drawn versus digital - becomes quite large in the grand scheme of things. You risk disorienting your followers if you deviate from your normal style. Since I have largely done vector-based designs, I risked that with this Furever design by choosing a hand-drawn font. But I think it was worth it.

In the coming weeks, I'm working on some poster designs for a fundraiser I'm having with Pug Rescue Austin, so I'll probably have all sorts of awful struggles with that.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


One of my major flaws - both as a human and a maker of things - is an unconscious belief that I can do most things, given that I put the necessary amount of work and passion into it. This assumption may or may not be the result of growing up in an age and society where that's what we're told.

This belief has proven to be both necessary and embarrassing. Necessary because without the belief, I might have accepted some lesser fate, and embarrassing because it fosters delusions of grandeur - delusions made more public by the internet.

As it relates to Coat and Tails, I began, and still operate, under the pretense that I would stick relatively closely to a Victorian style. I did no research, and I never really accomplished any design that was particularly Victorian before. All I knew was that I liked it. No, loooooved it. And I guess when you see something beautiful (and ridiculous, in my case), you're inspired by it, and you want to recreate it or push it, regardless of whether you're capable of recreating it, much less pushing it.

Turns out, I'm way better at modernist design - the antithesis of Victorian design. HOW ABOUT THAT. For instance, below is a new poster I did that resembles film noir.

(This poster is to be crowd-sourced on Pug Rescue Austin's Facebook page, hence the placeholder.)

Although I will not abandon Victorian design, I will probably explore more modernist design in parallel, hopefully without disorienting my followers and disrupting my brand.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Pushing the Genre

I decided to start this blog so I could write more about the process and thought behind my work. Tumblr wasn't a good platform for writing: it seems more based on images rather than words. A blog post on Tumblr seems to be little more than an image and a few hashtags. Anyway, this is where I would like to talk about the ever-evolving process behind the work I do as a drawer of animals and designer of posters.

I started Coat and Tails about a year and a half ago. Its basic philosophy has not changed much: I draw animals wearing Victorian/Edwardian costumes in three different styles. The styles are named after the patterns on dog coats. The first is the Brindle Fawn. It's black and sepia and resembles tintypes.
Left: tintype / Right: one of my first Brindle Fawn drawings
The Blue Merle looks more like a drawing - cuz that's what it is - and the Black Ticked resembles a daguerreotype, which is a type of black and white photography.

This has worked out pretty well. I could probably continue doing pet portraits for the rest of my life. But that sounds kind of stagnant, and I'd have to be a zen master to control my restlessness and blind ambition. So how do I evolve and push the genre of pet portraiture?

Pushing the Genre
Going beyond the genre of pet portraiture is one question I'm continually grappling with. I've kind of always thought that that portraiture was one of the least interesting art forms - it just turns out that I'm perhaps better at it than other art forms.

One way that I've tried to push the genre is creating portraits that are sort of like turn-of-the-century tradecards or labels. One reason that I draw pets wearing clothes is that it's a fun and interesting way to show their personalities. I mean, a realistic portrait is nice, but it can't really say that much about the pet's personality. It's limiting, and honestly I think realism is as boring as that Lincoln movie was. But if the pet is wearing a Lincoln outfit, for instance, or a ratty suit, the viewer can understand who that pet is or was, their role in the family. 

Going beyond costumes, though, if there were words as well, then the portrait could be really different and interesting and show the pet's personality using humor and poetry and graphic design all tied up in one killer portrait. Below is one effort I've made at this:

Curly Fry lived on a farm and ate roosters, but obviously he was also a Therapy Dog, Water Hound, and Guard Dog (which is weird for a Lab, but whatevs). 

Although I like the Curly Fry portrait, I still strive for a warmer look - maybe with color, and definitely with better typography - like the lithographs, cabinet cards, cameo cards, and engravings from other turn-of-the-century ephemera, such as the samples below.

Could you imagine how cool it'd be to have a totally customized portrait that looks like the above? Obviously one of the necessary ingredients would be to feature the dog in the middle more, since it's a portrait after all. But part of the portrait is the words and decoration surrounding it, so maybe not?

I guess overall, I'm going to try to get better at typography and whatever skills I'd need to de-digitalize my current practice to achieve a warmer look. 

I think I'll go do that now, actually.